“We do not believe what they say”: Viola Davis at Texas Southern U

We do not worship them

We do not worship what they have made.

We do not trust them                                                                                                            

We do not believe what they say.  

                                       — Alice Walker “Each One, Pull One”

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Photo Credit: Chron.com

Viola Davis’ recent talk at TSU made me think back to Walker’s “Each One, Pull One,” especially the line “We do not believe what they say.” In a conversation with Deborah Duncan, Davis told the audience that in order to redefine herself, she had to go through a period of dispelling “everything everybody ever told her about being a black woman, because it was a lie” (Davis; emphasis mine).

Davis’ words resonated with all of us whom white supremacist-classist-racist-homophobic-sexist culture tells we aren’t good enough, we will never be pretty enough, we are too dark, too feminine, too skinny, too fat, too masculine, not “man” enough, not the right “kind” of black.

The fifth-born of six children, Davis grew up in abject poverty in Central Falls, Rhode Island. In spite of the rats that scurried across her cold floors, “big dreams were born in that house,” Davis recalled.

ImageDavis was introduced to the “craft” after seeing Cicely Tyson star in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In Tyson, Davis said she saw a woman who looked like her mom. By providing that source of identification, Davis said Tyson “gave [her] permission to accept [herself].”

Achieving self-acceptance has been critical for sustaining herself as one of a handful of dark-skinned black actresses in Hollywood. Davis spoke candidly about the narrow scope of roles afforded black actresses in general and those who are dark-skinned in particular. While her fans (including this one) would like to see her play a love interest or rock a sexy role, none of us could name a dark-skinned sista in her 40s recently cast in a love story.

ImageDavis also spoke candidly about not wanting to play a maid. Asked if she knew the impact The Help would have, Davis exclaimed, “Yes! I knew–and not necessarily in good ways–I knew all of it! I knew white women would love it and the black community would be outraged. I was very conflicted about taking that job because I’m constantly aware of my responsibility to the African American community.” Davis said she ultimately accepted the role because it was one of the best scripts she got. She also welcomed the challenge to play a character who wasn’t “beautiful” or “flashy” and to make that character “work.”

The success of The Help has opened more doors for Davis. Her and her husband Julius Tennon (pictured above) are working on a biopic of the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who was an alumna of TSU. Davis, who will play Jordan, said she looks forward to transforming into someone who was so “iconic” and “an American hero.” I look forward to Davis transforming the iconic hero into a complex human who not only championed political causes and broke down doors but also loved, erred, felt pain, and showed vulnerability.

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About jennifer williams

Jennifer D. Williams is a writer and professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies. She has published in academic journals and online at Ms.blog, PopMatters, among other sites. Jennifer is currently working on a book that looks at black women's urban literature between the Depression and the civil rights era.

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